Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

“Why am I reading this?”

A unfortunate thought to have on page 251 of an 800 page novel. And for the reader to be noticing page numbers…

I knew a kid in high school who used to agonize over reading assignments. He always knew exactly how many pages an assigned book had and what page he was on. He would formulate various complicated mathematical comforts: “I read three eighteenths already. So, nine more pages and I’ll be seven forty-thirds of the way through.”

Then he would put the book between his palms and squeeze hard while peering with one eye (like a mad cockatoo) at the location of the bookmark. Was he aiming for a more accurate assessment of the bookmark’s location? Or was it a physics-defying attempt to will said bookmark closer to the end? Other humans sure are mysteries.

Unfortunately, I can see how someone reading “Human Traces” might be driven to this sort of behavior.

But I digress. (This was supposed to be a mini-review! “Where’s the mini?” you’re probably asking yourself. “Hell, where’s the review?” Well, the review part will be mini. I’m just avoiding it. I’m still uncomfortable saying negative things about live authors.)

Okay, here we go. I picked this book up because of the subject: the early days of psychiatry, Charcot’s lectures, madness… sounded like something I’d quite enjoy. Sadly, not.

I read somewhere that the author spent five years doing research for the historical backdrop of the book. Shame he didn’t put an equal amount of time into the characters. They’re clichéd types without any discernible character arcs.

There’s another problem here that I’m finding in so many modern novels these days. I call it the “chummy effect”. The main characters are all painfully chummy. It’s unearned and unbelievable. Their relationships have no complexity. It’s like bad television. Plus, they all speak in the same voice: they don’t speak from their own history, point of view and agenda. (John Dufresne has a wonderful section on how to write good dialogue in his book: “The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction”.)

Throughout the whole novel there’s a distinct feeling of putting in time. Like being stuck in traffic. We plod through scene after tiresome scene wherein no one has anything very interesting to say and nothing very interesting happens. Time passes, your fingernails grow, the earth’s magnetic pole shifts ever so slightly to the left.

Then there are the little careless blunders that always make me think the author may in fact be watching television while writing. Things like: “She wiped her hands down the front of her dress…” Two pages ago, the character put on a “plum-coloured silk dress with a tight bodice and a full skirt”. That’s some fancy hand towel!

Another example:

“…managed to extend a yellowish, choreatic hand to the decanter on the sideboard and pour another glassful for the guest.”

Choreatic is in the OED as “archaic, no longer in use”. It refers to St. Vitus’s dance. Would it have killed him to say “shaky”? What is the point of yanking out a word like that here? Maybe if it was in dialogue, used by a doctor. But from the narrator?

The author can produce the occasional pleasing physical description — a hand on the bark of a tree, the smell of dusty upholstery in summer — that feels precise and hypnotically calming. As for “the early days of psychiatry, Charcot’s lectures and madness”, you’d be much better off reading a non-fiction book on the subject. Sadly, “Human Traces” is just time-filler. Plodding, pseudo-literary historical fiction.

Life is too short. (Life is probably too short for this length of amateur book review as well. Thanks for reading to the end!)

Tags: , , ,

2 Responses to “Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks”

  1. Rob
    April 20th, 2008 21:20

    I take it you won’t be rushing out to buy his Bond novel next month, then?

    The only one of his I’ve tried to read was Birdsong. I gave up after about half an hour: I just didn’t care.

  2. blastedmembers.com
    May 3rd, 2008 19:50

    Strange, isn’t it, the not caring.

    He’s got a promising setup with the characters, interesting events being used as the backdrop, good research… but it all just turns to stale cracker crumbs.

    A Bond novel. Yeesh.

Leave a Reply

  • Search

    • "Let's go swimming and have Martinis on the beach," she said. "Let's have a fabulous morning."
    • Goodbye, My Brother
    • by John Cheever
    • I tell myself that we are a long time underground and that life is short, but sweet.
    • Alcestis
    • by Euripides (translated by Richard Aldington)

    • What business Stevinus had in this affair,---is the greatest problem of all;---it shall be solved,---but not in the next chapter.
    • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
    • by Laurence Sterne